Skip to content

In the online maelstrom in which professional journalism and issues-analysis compete with ‘‘deepfakes’’ and pseudo-news, headlines matter more now than in the heyday of printed newspapers. Jolting words and phrases capture trolling readers.

The Atlantic, a 160-year-old magazine now with a website daily offering interpretive journalism, surely jolted some readers this week with the online headline, “Better Schools Won’t Fix America.’’ The print edition has a somewhat softer version, “Education Isn’t Enough.”

Read the essay beneath the headline. It is written by Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and investor, one of the super-wealthy who adopted education as a philanthropic cause and has ended up sobered by the complex reality. He calls education an “unalloyed good,’’ but not a “cure-call’’ for economic inequality.

“To be clear,’’ Hanauer asserts, “we should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.”

“If we really want to give every American child an honest and equal opportunity to succeed,’’ he says, “we must do much more than extend a ladder of opportunity—we must also narrow the distance between the ladder’s rungs. We must invest not only in our children, but in their families and their communities. We must provide high-quality public education, sure, but also high-quality housing, health care, child care, and all the other prerequisites of a secure middle-class life. And most important, if we want to build the sort of prosperous middle-class communities in which great public schools have always thrived, we must pay all our workers, not just software engineers and financiers, a dignified middle-class wage.”

Hanauer’s essay in The Atlantic is not addressed specifically to North Carolina, but it’s relevant to debates over health insurance as well as state and national tax cuts that favor business and the affluent. The essay adds perspective in the coincidental release of the annual Kid’s Count Data Book, which ranks North Carolina 33rd among the states in indicators of child and family well-being.

In addition, new industry and employment projections by the North Carolina Department of Commerce, published online in two blog posts, depict a bifurcated economy in need of state investment in improved schooling and, beyond that, in enhanced personal well-being and community vitality. Drawing on federal and state data going back to 1990, the analyses provide projections to 2026 within 16 sub-state regions.

The Commerce analysts regard manufacturing remaining a key component of the state’s economy, though they foresee flat or modestly declining job growth in that sector. They chart a distinct shift from goods-producing to service-providing.

“Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, and Wilmington are also expected to be the only three regions with more than half of the new jobs earning $30,000 or more in annual median wages,” say the Commerce analysts. “For remaining regions, most of the new jobs are expected to be at the lower end of the pay scale (less than $30,000).”

They also project a rise in jobs requiring post-secondary education over the next nine years, especially in the major metro regions. “Despite that,’’ they say, “more than half of all jobs created across all regions will still require either no formal education or only a high school diploma.”

This finding presents a conflicting vision of the future to that presented earlier this decade by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, which projected that 61 percent of North Carolina jobs would require some post-secondary training by 2020. Its projections have propelled much policy discussion in North Carolina and elsewhere. The differences in findings can be explained by differences in methodology — the Commerce analysis more cautious, the Georgetown analysis more expansive. All in all, North Carolina needs a stronger understanding of its economic realities in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

In places — rural communities and metropolitan neighborhoods — where projections point to a prevalence of low-wage, low-skill jobs, education may not cure all. Still, stronger schools can shift the prospects for both individuals and communities. Without educational advancement, what you see now is what North Carolina likely will continue to get.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.